Clark became director of teaching and education for the SCLC and her methods-and talent for turning people into leaders-became an engine for the next phase of the civil rights movement. She ran a headquarters at Dorchester, a former Congregationalist retreat off the Georgia coast, but also traveled extensively in the field to check on the hundreds of proliferating citizenship schools. She did so at great personal risk, constantly harassed by local KKK chapters or White Citizen's Council groups. They would often surround the buildings where she held meetings, and on one occasion, set fire to a church five minutes after she had left.
Clark also kept up with people through writing letters to former students. "Politicians listen to voters," she reminded Mildred Patterson, "You know how to get them registered. It is important to get your Citizenship School started at once." And she made it a point to study and record local hurdles at the polls. Each state had different requirements, and poll testers routinely blocked blacks with unanswerable questions. Congressman John Lewis, himself a graduate of Clark's workshop, recalls being asked, "How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?" Clark did her best to fight back, adding other material to her unique lesson books that included questions such as "What does the 14th Amendment say?" and "Who is a citizen?"
Clark continued her work with the SCLC until 1972, when she retired to her native Charleston, where she did community service such as raising money for daycare centers and scholarships. In 1975, she became a member of the same school board that had fired her for refusing to give up her NAACP membership. As time passed, she continued to see the fruits of her labors such as key civil rights legislation like the Voting Rights Act, and for the increase in African-Americans elected to public offfice. "From one end of the South to the other," she remarked in 1985, "if you look at the black elected officials and the political leaders, you find people who had their first involvement in the training program of the citizenship school." Through grace and vision, Septima Poinsette Clark pioneered a core of the Civil Rights movement, alleviating unspeakable oppression and injustice and bringing our country closer to its founding ideals. Clark died in 1987 in a nursing home on John's Island.
Karenna Gore Schiff is the author of Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America. She previously worked as director of community affairs at the Association to Benefit Children (A-B-C.org). Before that, she was an attorney at Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett. Her other work includes freelance writing, positions on the editorial staffs of Slate magazine and El Pais newspaper and volunteer legal and advocacy work for Sanctuary for Families (SFFNY.org). She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
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